When a criminal trial concludes we often think of the victims involved, the witnesses, the loved ones and family members impacted. We hear opinions from the Crown and Defense Counsel surrounding the verdict, and how the trial personally impacted them. We hear from first responders and police detectives, their own stories of grief and trauma at the scene of the crime and throughout the investigation.
But we rarely, if ever, hear from the jurors who sit in court every day, who are personally involved in the case, observing all the evidence, and who deliberate, reach and deliver the verdict.
Jurors enter the courtroom anonymous and remain silent, and ultimately return to obscurity after the verdict. For some, they conclude their duty with that experience under their belt and simply resume their lives.
But for some, and in those truly disturbing cases, that trial experience stays with them to devastating effect, leading to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic-stress-disorder – changing their lives forever. And until recently, jurors across Canada had very few supports post-trial available to them.
I was a juror on a first-degree murder trial involving the brutal killing of a young woman by her former boyfriend. I sat through an extensive trial and was exposed to violent evil in the form of evidence, heard harrowing testimony, and had to consider a complicated charge – as was my duty and role as a juror. I accepted my role, and I remain proud of the duty I performed as Jury Foreman in delivering the verdict.
However, I’m not the same person coming out of that trial as I was going in. I left the courthouse stunned after a four-day deliberation and couldn’t settle back into my life, my work, and my routine. Like some form of water torture, I was bombarded by trial images constantly throughout my day regardless of where I was or what I was doing at the time.
I chalked this up to the stress of the trial and post-trial re-acclimatization. I thought if I put my head down, got back to work, and ignored everything, that it would all get better.
It did not get better. It got worse. Completely unable to sleep, I would sit like a zombie, and if I slept at all I was subjected to traumatic nightmares. I knew something was wrong with me: this wasn’t normal. When I sought help, I found none available; at the time jurors in Ontario could only receive mental health counselling if it had been issued by the presiding Judge.
I had to weave my way through a complex and chaotic mental health system to find my own support. I was given a list of names from my family doctor and had to cold call. Because I was a juror, few clinicians were willing to even talk to me, let alone take me on as a patient, fearing legal repercussions. All the while I was getting sicker and sicker. On every face I saw blood and gore. In my children’s drawings all I saw was blood. Every cry sent me into defence mode. Every noise sent me into panic.
In every social setting I was reliving a crime scene, the violent brutal death of a young woman in her final minutes. Over, and over, and over again.
I was formally diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental illness that I was aware of through stories about our veterans and police, but honestly knew very little about. I felt ashamed of my diagnosis. I thought this was my fault. A character flaw – that I was weak. I thought of the victim, the family and their pain, and struggled to validate what was happening to me.
PTSD is a mental disorder, an injury stemming from exposure to traumatic events in a variety of forms including assault, combat, accidents, and sexual violence. Mental health issues are nobody’s fault. They are not character flaws. They are illnesses, like any physical illness. As I progressed through therapy, two things occurred to me: I can’t be the only juror to have suffered from jury service; and this must happen more than we know. I was right.
I learned that as far back as the infamous Paul Bernardo trial – truly one of Canada’s most notorious crimes – that the jury members developed anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder from the stresses of the trial and the horrific images presented in court. I learned that those jurors had been provided counselling by the presiding Justice after the conclusion of the case. All of them used it. Counselling was then made available to jurors through the Ontario Courts, but it had to be issued by the presiding judge in court. If not issued, jurors were shut out from getting help without cost to themselves. I felt this was an injustice to Canadians who, through serving and doing their civic duty were exposed to terrible images and posed with difficult legal questions, could not receive help to move past that experience. I was determined to ensure that what happened to me did not happen to others.
I began writing letters to the Ontario and the Federal Governments, drawing attention to the issue, but was getting no response even after repeated attempts. Letter after letter was getting no response, no results. I began to second guess myself. Maybe this was not an issue. Maybe this was the burden of the juror to endure, given the crimes and the victims involved. But it felt wrong. I began to discuss the issue with professionals in the legal community and police officers, and every time I heard the same thing, “Before you, I would never have thought about this – but you are absolutely right. And I’ve always wondered what happened to jurors after leaving the courthouse.” I had my answer. But I was still getting no response from government.
I knew that the only way to gain traction was to go public with the issue. This posed unique challenges of its own. It meant disclosing for the first time to others that I was suffering from PTSD.
What would be the impact on my family, on my career? These were some serious considerations. But I felt the issue was too important to ignore and that it was my duty to see it through. After numerous television interviews and articles, the issue was live. Suddenly, other jurors from across the county began contacting me through social media, sharing their stories which were similar to mine. Some had been battling PTSD for years.
I observed that in other provinces and territories there were also little or no resources for jurors.
The Ontario Government responded by announcing the Ontario Juror Support Program, offering a toll-free access service and up to eight mental health counselling sessions post-trial. Together with twelve other former jurors, a package was delivered to the senior federal Cabinet in Ottawa, including the Prime Minister, calling for leadership in establishing a National Standard for Juror Support. I called this the “12 Angry Letters” campaign. Opposition MPs took up the cause and petitioned the Federal Justice Committee to undertake an examination of Juror Stress and Mental Illness, and so began an extensive year-long study. The Justice Committee released a report citing 11 recommendations to improve Jury Duty as a whole. I continued to petition provincial officials to introduce reforms to jury duty. No juror should ever have to lament the lack of supports in their own province.
I was also proud to add my support to a Federal Private Members Bill (Bill C211) asking for a Federal Framework for a Response to PTSD for First Responders, Military, Veterans, and Corrections Officers. I’ve said that first responders and jurors are the bookends of the justice system, one answering the call, the other closing the case in court: both deserve the same support for their actions. I was grateful to have been recognized for my efforts by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and was named one of the 150 Difference Makers in Mental Health.
Recently, Bill C417 was adopted at 2nd Reading by the House of Commons, which seeks to amend the Criminal Code (section 649) to allow jurors to discuss trial elements, including deliberation, with a medical practitioner. I’m hopeful that it will pass 3rd Reading and become law. The landscape looks very different for jurors now, with British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario providing supports. This issue is live. And more reforms are yet to come!
Mental Health is a chief concern of Canadians, and the stigma surrounding mental health challenges is slowly beginning to be shed through effective public health communication, activism, and grass-roots social acceptance. Canadians are beginning to understand that their mental health is as important as their physical health and are encouraged to seek assistance when the need arises.
I wasn’t willing to let what happened to me happen to someone else. I wasn’t willing to let my mental illness drive my destiny. I’m bigger than my mental illness. We’re all bigger than our illness. I’m Unsinkable. We are Unsinkable.